Uzbekistan plans to carry out joint military exercises with Russia in 2005 involving Russian paratroopers from the 76th Pskov Airborne Division. Colonel-General Alexander Kolmakov, Commander of the Russian Airborne Troops, confirmed that these plans are part of a series of foreign military exercises scheduled with China, India, and Uzbekistan, further raising the profile of the professionalization experiment within the elite Russian Division. Such joint exercises between the Uzbek and Russian armed forces, once considered a distant prospect owing to political differences, now signify the evolving nature of Tashkent’s rapprochement with Moscow and Uzbekistan’s reliance on Russia in the event of unforeseen security problems. This announcement comes amid continued concerns over the weakness of Uzbek border security and the ability of the intelligence services to gain adequate information on the precise nature of the militant threat facing the country.
Kolmakov’s confirmation that exercises will take place on Uzbek soil, on a bilateral basis, reveals the political value placed on the reinvigorated security relationship between the two countries. The 76th Pskov Division, which has seen combat service in Chechnya and is prioritized within the Russian armed forces for deployment to “hotspots,” could play a crucial role in any future joint operations against insurgents or terrorists within Uzbekistan. Kolmakov intimated its potential importance, stating, “During joint maneuvers with subunits of the airborne troops of India, Uzbekistan, and China, airborne drops of Russian servicemen will be made at the training areas of those countries from military transport aircraft that will fly out from Russia. Then there will be a practical try-out of issues relating to the joint conduct of combat operations, complete with live firing” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 22). While drawing attention to the possibility of joint combat operations, theoretically agreed as part of the Russian-Uzbek strategic partnership, these exercises also confirm the likely sharing of the Russian experience of professionalizing these units with their Uzbek counterparts. This may be juxtaposed with Uzbek efforts to promote greater security partnerships with Western countries and energize its Partnership for Peace (PfP) relations with NATO.
Moreover, since traditionally the use of Airborne Troops in offensive operations has involved deployment deep inside an adversary’s defenses, capturing key bridgeheads and positions or destroying enemy headquarters and strategic installations, there may well be questions regarding the value that these forces could bring Uzbekistan. Their participation in ethnic conflicts within Russia and elsewhere in the CIS in the last 15 years developed out of necessity and is unusual for these forces. Yet their experience in the Chechen theater of operations could signal the export of Russian military tactics from Chechnya to future conflicts within the CIS.
Closer security ties with Moscow reflect mutual interests in soft security concerns stemming from the weakness of Uzbek border security and the security threats faced by the regime: narcotic smuggling, arms trafficking, and the movement of militants across Central Asia’s porous borders. On February 22 Uzbek National Security officers successfully foiled efforts to transport a 20-kilogram consignment of drugs through the Uzbek-Kazakh border (Uzbek TV First Channel, February 22). The suspects arrested were Kazakhstani citizens. Despite reported successes, the authorities in Tashkent try hard to conceal from the public the ongoing nature of the struggle to thwart narco-trafficking and the inadequate resources placed at the disposal of the security agencies.
Official Tashkent versions of the terrorist bombings in the capital and Bukhara in 2004, recently aired in a series of documentaries on Uzbek television, promote the idea of the indigenous terrorist problem being inextricably linked to al-Qaeda. In fact, the Uzbek version of those events focuses upon Kazakhstani involvement in the bombings, since some of those involved were allegedly from Kazakhstan, tracing their training to al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan (Uzbek TV First Channel, February 18). Indeed, those groups involved in the attacks, according to Uzbek investigators, suggest an overlap between the old Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist group and al-Qaeda by disaffected militants. The reality is that those events took the Uzbek intelligence services by surprise, and they still have no clear understanding of the exact nature of the terrorist threat facing Uzbekistan, apart from a general “Islamic” specter.
Of course, making sense of Russian paratroopers carrying out exercises in Uzbekistan is further complicated by the fact that there can be no peace support or peacekeeping role for Russian Airborne units within the country. Their joint exercises will rehearse combat operations — but against whom? From Tashkent’s perspective, as it plays the game of seeking to maximize its security assistance from Western and Russian partners, counter-terrorism becomes embroiled in the vague dynamics of definition. It may seek to act against various groups, or to control dangerous political instability, without necessarily gaining international support for its actions. Moscow is not only predisposed to turning a blind eye, but has its own experience of the Chechen conflict to share with Uzbek counterparts thus conveying a Russian understanding of “counter-terrorism.” Tashkent can easily distinguish the difference.
Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov may yet call for direct assistance from Russia during a future political crisis in which the presence of Russian paratroopers will be less theoretical and more practically appreciated. Meanwhile, Uzbek servicemen can absorb Russian methods and doctrine, all too familiar to their post-Soviet legacy forces.